BERKELEY — The last time Wrenn Robinson was in Cal’s Haas Pavilion, he was only 11 or 12 years old. The Oakland native came twice every year of his childhood, and loved shooting in the Golden Bears’ home gym.
Now a senior at St. Ignatius, Robinson felt at ease when the annual Bruce-Mahoney basketball game against Sacred Heart Cathedral was moved to the arena, just 15 minutes away from his home in Oakland, while its traditional home at USF’s War Memorial Gym at the Sobrato Center has its capacity limited by renovations.
“It was always fun playing here,” Robinson said. “I had a lot of good childhood memories. It was really nice to play my last Bruce here. It meant a lot.”
The unsigned guard put on a clinic, scoring a game-high 25 points on an emotional night that saw a homecoming for not just Robinson, but for fellow senior Neal Begovich. The two accounted for 46 of the Wildcats’ 65 points in a 65-45 win over the Fightin’ Irish, meaning that the oldest private prep rivalry west of the Mississippi will come down to this spring’s baseball game at AT&T Park.
“We have a long road to go, we’re a long way from where we want to be, but I like where we’re moving,” said head coach Rob Marcaletti, whose team has rebounded from three losses to start the season to win six of their last 10. “Everybody’s bought in.”
Last year, Robinson was the only underclassman starter for the Wildcats, and considered just a shooter. This season, he’s had to evolve into a more complex and involved point guard role. He distributed, shot, defended and showed off nifty handles on Tuesday in a game that was expected to be much closer, and in fact, was nip-and-tuck for much of the first quarter.
After the Irish (8-5, 1-2 in WCAL) got out to an 8-2 start, Stanford-bound Neal Begovich made a strong first impression in a building he’ll play in once he gets to Palo Alto, going on a personal 8-2 run and draining two threes from college distance to tie things up at 10-10.
Begovich — who had five blocks, 11 rebounds and 21 points the day after the nine-year anniversary of his father’s death — got to play for the first time in the same building as his father, Daniel, who played for the Golden Bears in the late 1970s, and was Cal’s MVP in 1977.
“It’s crazy,” Begovich said. “God works in mysterious ways. To play here the day afterwards, nine years later, my senior year, you can’t make that stuff up. Incredible. Yesterday was a tough day. It always is every year, but you feel his presence for sure, and it’s calming. I was very confident today.”
Despite Begovich’s run in the first quarter, Sacred Heart Cathedral buckets by senior Lawvan Johns — returning from a concussion — and Elijah Flowers gave the Irish a 14-11 edge at the end of one.
St. Ignatius (6-7, 2-1), a normally-stout rebounding team, allowed six offensive rebounds by the Irish in the first quarter alone, though. The Wildcats picked things up in the second, with an 8-2 rebounding margin over the first three minutes.
“We spent a whole time out and a whole first-to-second quarter [break] just talking about rebounding,” Marcaletti said. “We didn’t focus on anything else. It was a huge focal point for us.”
A floater by Jackson Canady was answered by an Oscar Cheng lay-up to make it 16-16, but a pair of Robinson jumpers — including a three from up top — pulled St. Ignatius ahead, 21-16. After the Irish pulled within 3, Robinson splashed another triple, followed by a three from the left wing by Begovich for a 13-2 run.
“The second quarter, we set a lot of drag ball screens to help me get open midrange, and I think I hit two, and I felt good, so I kept shooting them,” Robinson said.
The 6-foot-2 Robinson then hit a shake-and-bake step-back three over 6-foot-8 Sacred Heart Cathedral star forward Cheng with 10 seconds to go in the half to make it 32-22.
“It was a heat check,” said Robinson, who drained five 3-pointers on the night. “I think I hit a couple before, so I had to shoot it.”
“He’s a three-year varsity starter,” Marcaletti said. “Just shoot it. He’s earned it. I have complete trust in him. I’ve told the guys that. He’s got a looser rein because he’s been there and he’s gone through these games. Sure enough, that’s what he does. He just steps up.”
Begovich — who wasn’t much help on the glass early — contributed four first-half blocks to make up for his deficiencies on the glass, and scored 13 of his 21 points before halftime.
During the break, the usual Bruce-Mahoney halftime spectacle included one St. Ignatius student dressed in a white ribbed tank top, skinny jeans, and armband and a faux mustache, grasping half a mic stand while he played call-and-response with the student section — an homage to Queen frontman Freddie Mercury, memorialized in this winter’s Golden Globe-winning Bohemian Rhapsody. Then, he slid into Queen’s “Don’t Stop Me Now,” and appropriately, Robinson obliged.
Begovich and Robinson hit back-to-back threes as the Wildcats went on an 8-0 run out of the half, before Cheng broke it with a jumper on the left wing, sending the Irish into a three-quarter court press, down 40-24. The lead would balloon to 50-32 at the end of the third quarter despite two heroic drives from Irish guard Cedric Reed Jr., who finished with nine points.
The Wildcats, who held the dangerous Cheng to just six points, outscored the Irish 21-8 in the second quarter, and 18-10 in the third to put the game out of reach.
“I think we had a good game last Saturday in terms of getting the ball in the paint, so we just played inside-out against these guys,” Begovich said. “I think we did a good job, offensively, pounding it inside, and on defense, [Cheng] can really score, and he has a good post-up there, so we focused on gapping him, and getting the ball detached from his body so he couldn’t feel it, made him put it on the ground.”
Little-used senior Ross Klein was called upon midway through the fourth quarter, and immediately made an impact, banking one in to give the Wildcats a 24-point lead with just over five minutes to go, and then hitting another shot to swell the lead to 58-32. He would hit three straight shots after checking in, eliciting raucous cheers from the student section, which just so happened to be behind the basket at which the Wildcats were shooting. Klein finished with nine points.
“Ross is the glue to us,” Marcaletti said. “He’s the one that keeps us all together. He’s our captain, he’s our emotional leader.”
Next up, St. Ignatius hosts two of the best teams in the WCAL — Serra in the Beach Game on Thursday, and then Riordan on Saturday.
“This is my third rodeo, so I knew what to expect, but at the same time, it is just another league game, so we’re just trying to put together a string of wins, so we can try to make a run at the league championship,” Robinson said. “It was a good win. Now, we need to lock in.”